The body positivity community is quickly growing on social media. Every day there are new posts by women and men baring their insecurities and embracing their bodies. These posts, and this movement, are meant to normalize a wider variety of bodies than what we typically see in media (read: thin, able, with clear skin, ect.) and help people disassociate their worth as humans from so-called “faults” and “flaws” of their physical bodies.
As I become more involved in this online community I am continually reminded of the importance of the body positivity message – especially in the context of working with my personal training and wellness coaching clients.
Long before I stumbled across the body positivity hashtag while browsing Instagram, I knew it only as a very important but unnamed concept that I always applied to my personal training practice. Although I didn’t have the language to describe it, from the time I started training my first clients, I knew how important it was for me to establish a body positive atmosphere, especially when working with weight loss clients.
Body positivity also comes with some controversy. Critics of the movement will say it promotes unhealthy behaviors, excuses laziness, and glamorizes and unhealthy lifestyle. I do not agree. I think that body positivity makes it easier to create healthy behaviors that last. The body positive atmosphere I create when I coach has helped my clients be more successful.
After a lot of pondering, I have boiled down my reasoning for body positive personal training two three main points:
1.) Body-negative diet culture is dangerous
Diet culture promotes under-eating, overexercising, and a hyper-focus on one’s size and measurements. Unfortunately, many trainers perpetuate diet culture by pushing dangerously hardcore weight loss programs and supplements on their clients. This usually comes with a healthy dose of body negativity in the form of shaming clients for their bodies and behaviors. I do not believe this “style” of training is helping anyone.
The way I see it, I have two primary responsibilities to my clients: to give them the results they are seeking, and to keep them safe. To me, this responsibility for client safety goes beyond athletic injury and extends to hormonal, metabolic, adrenal, and mental health.
The tricky thing about weight loss is that it is ultimately wrapped up in these very delicate systems. Of all of them, mental health is the keystone. A person with a weight loss goal and an unhealthy mental state about this goal is susceptible to unhealthy behaviors that could result in host of problems. The most obvious example of this is a clinically diagnosable eating disorder, which produces very drastic and sometimes fatal effects on the body.
But what are so often ignored are the less obvious, more socially acceptable ways of hurting a body in an effort to loose weight. Yo-yo dieting can disrupt normal metabolic function and make it very difficult to keep excess weight off once it is lost. Chronic under-eating, even if not to the level of anorexia nervosa, can lead to infertility in women, and long-term exposure to high levels of intense cardiovascular exercise can overload the stress system (also known as HPA axis dysregulation) and cause the body to stop producing and responding the hormone cortisol in a normal way. A lot of people tend to think these effects only apply to “normal weight” people dropping to an “underweight” status. But these behaviors are destructive for anybody, of any weight class, regardless of whether or not they lose weight as a result.
This fact becomes even more worrisome when you remember that “diet hopping,” calorie restriction, and daily, long lasting cardio workouts are widely accepted behaviors by our society, and are often even promoted by trainers and coaches.
I want to help my clients reach their goals, including their weight loss goals! But I do not want to destroy their bodies and minds in the process. I have found that body positivity plays a huge role in making this happen. When I help clients ditch the crazy diets and hours on the treadmill and replace them with ample amounts of nourishing foods and movement that makes them feel strong and confident, I find they are able to stick to their plans and make lasting changes to their behaviors and bodies.
2.) Weight loss is not a requirement for improved self-esteem, body image or health.
Weight loss itself is not necessarily an indicator of improved health status. In reality, it is a change from less health promoting behaviors to more health promoting behaviors that improves health status. Sometimes these same behaviors also lead to weight-loss, but not always. These behaviors can include more regular exercise, addition of more nutritious foods in the diet, and better management of stress.
In my own practice, I have observed over and over again that actual weight loss is also not necessary for clients to start feeling better about themselves. More often than not, poor self-esteem or body image is an important motivator, if not THE motivator for weight loss. Even if a client comes to me wanting to lose weight for medical reasons, they almost always admit to wanting to objectively look better as well. And why wouldn’t they? The world that they live in absolutely values thinner bodies over fatter ones, and the bias against fat bodies is prevalent from the workplace to the doctor’s office.
But I have also found that improvements in self-esteem and body image start to show often long before visible weight loss occurs. There are immediate changes that happen when a person starts eating and exercising more appropriately. These healthy practices help them connect to their bodies in amazingly intimate and positive ways. Moving well and eating food that nourishes us makes us feel good physically and mentally. Strength training boosts confidence and self-esteem. Plus, food and exercise provide our brains with the neurotransmitter hits that are so important for mood and mental health. But these benefits can only be experienced with the balanced and loving mindset that comes from body positivity.
3.) Fat-shaming is super counter-productive
The final reason I promote body positivity instead of body negativity in my coaching is the fact that telling someone they are fat, or even worse, making them feel discriminated against or shamed for it, does not actually help them lose weight. In many cases it actually results in further weight gain.
Just think about it, being shamed, for any reason, causes a great deal of emotional stress. Making another person feel excluded and disliked is a fantastic way to stress them out! Stress all on its own can make it hard to lose weight by causing chronically elevated cortisol, a hormone that promotes weight gain, especially in the abdomen. Stress is also a very important trigger for emotional eating, another large contributor to weight gain.
It is also important to remember that the person being fat shamed is most likely already hyper-aware of their size. Our society affords certain privileges to thin and normal weight people that individuals with more body fat do not get to enjoy. People with more than the “acceptable” amount of body fat are reminded of it all the time, and they do not need extra reminders.
Everyone deserves to feel valued and accepted regardless of their size or shape. In the end, fat-shaming and body negativity is not helpful or encouraging, it is just mean. It feeds the fire of self-hate and destruction that affects so many people.
I am totally on board with weight loss. I think it can be a fine and often very healthy thing to do. But when a person’s desire for weight loss is ultimately rooted in feelings of unworthiness, shame, or self-hate, there is a tendency to use unsafe weight loss tactics. So, in order to keep my clients safe, and help them reach their goals, body positivity – that is, removing their self-worth from the size, shape, and composition of their bodies – is absolutely necessary.
These are the reasons that I always have, and will continue to interact with my clients in a body positive way. By encouraging my clients to participate in health promoting behaviors, their health improves (imagine that). By coaching them through appropriate workouts, they get stronger and more mobile. And by speaking to them about their improved ability, mindset, habits, and health status, they start to shift some of their self-worth away from the shape and size of their bodies and are able to actually appreciate how amazing their bodies are and what their bodies can do.